1800s: Smiling Victorians

45 Responses

  1. VonsterVon

    fantastic…the little boy with the horse is just so sweet! nice to see some warmth…it’s true, so many victorian images are cold and seem to lack any kind feelings at all…but these show us other wise.

  2. Biggles

    I sometimes wonder just how much those stern, emotionless pictures have distorted our collective view of the past. Could they perhaps have contributed to much of the 20th century desire to break all ties with history and insist that ours are better, happier times? Not saying that they aren’t, but could part of the idealisation of the 60s be because it was the first period to usher in a glut of pictures of people actually enjoying themselves, and in colour!

    As an aside, it’s not just photography that may be to blame, paintings require a far longer sitting period and Leonardo is universally praised for being able to effectively capture a smile with his brushwork.

  3. Phil

    They might not be in colour, but we have lots of family photos of people enjoying themselves between the wars.

  4. Jolisa

    Any chance of turning these gorgeous photographs into a book? I would buy it!

    Biggles, I think you’re onto something. Something about a smiling face breaks the time barrier.

  5. sara

    Wow. My family has tons of pictures from that time and they all look like they are waiting to be stuffed. It wasn’t until about 1920 or so that they start acting more natural. Coincidentally that was when they had their own camera and pictures were no longer formal posed portraits taken at studios.
    No one smiled for the painted portraits either. I think they thought it made them look silly and we think it makes them look like they are alive. Perspective.

  6. barbara

    Oh, this is wonderful! Mr. Biggles, your first sentence is a very thought-provoking one and not without merit. However, there are many examples of happy, laughing people taken prior to the 1960′s (good heavens, you must be very young!)but your point is well-taken. The typical image of a Victorian is a dour, rigid, somewhat prim one (unless, of course, one were to actually crack open a book written in that time and then, well, so much for the accuracy of photography, but I digress.)

    While each photo is a delight, I particularly love the second one. Look how serious the couple seems in the first shot (very much like the majority of portraits you see of that time) and then he just can’t resist himself and starts to grab her and you can almost hear her giggling, can’t you? Thank you for another amazing glimpse into the past.

  7. Mike

    Nice to see an alternative view of the stereotype. Enjoyable photos and comments too. Good one!

  8. Mosstains

    Judging by the dates (and the fashions on the undated ones) these are mostly Edwardian, not Victorian.

  9. Avatar of Simon

    Biggles – quite so. At the heart of being a Retronaut is the realisation that our collective view of the past is false. Even the word “past” is false. No-one has ever lived in the “past” nor will they. Everyone has lived in “now”, just as we live “now”.

    It is of course true that our technology changes, and that includes the intellectual frameworks we use to operate in. At the same time, the experience of being alive as a person remains almost exactly constant. To the degree that we see the people who have lived before us as different to us, to that degree is our view of time distorted.

    “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.”
    - GM Trevelyan

  10. Snif

    I always have to remind myself that no matter how modern things seem to be in this day and age, in ten years time they will seem quaint, and in 20 will be ancient history (and after 21 will be revived selectively in a fit of fashionable nostalgia)

  11. Katie Honey

    I love that Trevelyan quote. For some reason these photos remind me of facebook photos, but of Victorians… It certainly narrows the gap between us and people like us who happened to be born at a different time

  12. Timothy

    It’s interesting to see the origons of the unsmiling victorian image. Perhaps other perceptions of the past we have are founded the same way? Maybe the reason we think that they ‘built stuff to last’ in the past is really because only the stuff that was built to last lasted?

  13. Kent

    What an amazing and inspiring collection. These people were just as goofy and fun-loving as anyone alive today!

    The boy with the toy horse is heart-breakingly beautiful, as is the woman collapsing into her husband’s arms with embarrassed laughter.

    This is very deep stuff, utterly beyond words. Thanks for putting this out there.

  14. Bas

    The four pictures of the couple are just adorable. They start out so formal, and suddenly they are in each others arms, laughing. That is so cute.

  15. Delphine

    The little boy is precious, but the couple at the end is just too adorable for words. What a neat resource, thanks!

  16. Rita

    I loved the pictures at the end. Just like photobooth pictures today, where you see the progression of the interaction.

    It does show that people are the same, whatever time period they live in.

    I also love the little boy, such a cute pic.

  17. CatM

    These are so charming! I love the couple cracking up at the end. Did they have photo booths back then??

  18. davidabl

    Without really doing my homework, I’m pretty sure than the Eastman Kodak “brownie” roll film camera was on the scene by the mid 1880′s and that exposure times were already at fractions of a second, at least in strong light. This is the only possible for some of the pictures
    posted..esp the pics of the couple goofing around in the studio..There’s only slight blur in
    the shots where they’re moving, consistent with about 1/10 second exposure or faster, in my

  19. Mathilde di Bianca

    Wonderful series of victorian smiles ! They have so natural and casual attitudes Usually we saw serious and almost stern portraits of people of the victorian age, but they lived and had fun too !

  20. Audra Hedger

    The couple at the end was wonderful! Just when you think you can’t see yet another couple who looks stiff and cold toward each other, they crack up and show how they feel about one another. Absolutely wonderful.

  21. ASprak

    That just goes to show you how much we allow ourselves to be guided by the way people look in old photos. Stern looks may just have a technical reason. Thanks for enlightening me.

  22. Lucas

    These are great photos! It makes such a difference to see people smiling in photos from this era. This is such a great website – so glad I found it :)

  23. Jmo

    These photographs look like pictures of… people! Actual people with recognizable emotions and whatnot! Really amazing to see!

    I have heard it said that part of the reason smiles were not often portrayed until relatively recently was because lack of dental care made for some bad-looking teeth. My mother has an album full of photos from the 1920s of our rural Tenessee relatives. All are in front of pretty rough-looking buildings, all the men have on a suit jacket over pretty worn out clothes such as patched overalls, etc. No-one is smiling. I always figured that it was becasue they were shy about their missing teeth.

  24. Jake

    Check your sources again. No-one until the mid 20th century speculated that the lack of smiles in early photographs was due to exposure time. The actual reason is alluded to in several letters from the era of no smiles, (1600s – 1940s-ish.) If exposure time were the culprit there would have been portrait paintings of smiling people. The real reason? It was considered flippant, almost disrespectful to portray a smile in paintings and photos.

  25. Jennifer

    I love the last the last four of the couple. The progression from the stern face we expect to the playful cuddling really challenges what we are taught of the victorians as people. And it’s simply very sweet. A wonderful collection.

  26. JontheVicar

    I am quite madly in love with the young lady in, I think, the 5th photograph down. Stunning, and very modern!

  27. old hippie

    Simply looking at the background says that 3 second exposures can’t be correct. I’ve dabbled in photography for decades and most of these photo’s have less than 1 second to them. Many of then far less.

  28. Tasha

    These are excellent. I have old photos in the family of ancestors around this time and no-one smiles back then. I don’t think I have ever seen a photograph of anyone smiling in that era. I wonder when photographers decided that people should smile instead of looking serious.
    It’s nice to see that life must have had its funny side even back then.

  29. Fowley

    This is wonderful, breaks down so many barriers between the past and the present – so life affirming!

  30. Maurice Fleury

    Incredible pictures a myth has fallen down… I though the word “smile” didn’t exist in the Victorian Core-rules book…

  31. jen

    Was it Queen Victoria who said ‘life is to be endured not enjoyed’? I think a lot of people in those days would have had decayed teeth,so maybe its the photographer who tells them not to smile..These lovely photos are the only ones ive seen with smiley faces..lovely

  32. 1920s

    Many of these photos are from the Edwardian era, not from the Victorian era.


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